It was an October morning 1888 when an Elm Coffin left the City mortuary in Golden Lane.
This was no ordinary Coffin: and this could be verified by the thousands of people who lined the route it meandered on its way to the Ilford Cemetery. Not only did they line the route, but they adorned the rooftops and windows of buildings which overlooked the casket upon its final journey. It was never left unwatched. Upon its arrival at the ragstone gates of the Cemetery, many men, women and children had escorted the body to a public grave where it was lowered into the welcoming soil, overseen by the Reverend Mr Dunscombe. Despite the sombreness of the funeral, the horror as to how the woman contained inside had met her end shocked the East-End and the nation.
A few weeks back I found myself at Liverpool Street Station boarding a rickety old 1980’s train, heading somewhere in the north-east of London, to a place called Manor Park. East London is one of those trendy places now: however whatever investment filtered through as a result of the Olympics seemed to have bypassed the route I took to Manor Park, where I disembarked and instantly felt a bit frightened. I was worried that by the end of the trip, I’d end up in the place I was visiting.
Me and Nick decided to visit the City of London Cemetery, where Catherine Eddowes, the lady aforementioned in the opening paragraph and fourth Jack the Ripper victim, joined Polly Nichols in being laid to rest.
It was the City’s answer to its Churchyards, which, upon closure on 1854, had a hundred or so Parish Churches to provide burial space for. The sprawl of urban development meant placement within the square mile was impossible, so land was acquired from Lord Wellesley, a cousin of the Duke of Wellington, to build a new Cemetery that opened in 1855. Opened by William Haywood, a surveyor and an engineer to the City of London Commissioners of Sewers (and in this capacity worked with James Bunstone Bunning, who laid out Nunhead Cemetery, to design the Holborn Viaduct) in conjunction with Dr John Simon, a surgeon and public health officer.
It was opened a few years after the Magnificent Seven, and it’s very clear that its deliberately cherry-picked the best elements of its forerunners to create an elegant, well proportioned burial ground. And that’s what sets this one apart from the many me, Nick, Steve, Ian, Ben and Christina have visited. If you want to sample what these Victorian places would have looked like in their prime – get yourself here. Because it is IMMACULATE.
In a highly contentious move: areas of the Cemetery are being reclaimed and opened, in a bid to continue using it for future generations of Londoners. Graves that are 75 years or more in age are being labelled with a sign indicating their eligibility to be reopened for more burials, as many were never fully occupied in the first place. If you fancy joining John Smith and his wife Jane who died in 1858 or Michael Bloggs who was born to eternal sleep in 1904, you can find out how to do so here. And you’d be in good company too – Sir Bobby Moore, Wren’s best mate Robert Hooke and Alfred Horsley Hinton are somewhere in this expanse of the dead!
The cleanliness of what is reputedly the largest such municipal facility in the UK, possibly even in Europe, sanitises the gruesome end Catherine Eddowes endured at the hands of the Leather Apron upon the cobbles of Mitre Square in August 1888.
All photography © Nick J Richards 2014